Coffee to-go or not to-go

Reusable cups should replace the 16 billion single-use cups that end up as trash every year

You enter a café, buy a coffee to-go and move out into the world with your coffee. 10 minutes later the coffee has been drunk, and the single-use cup becomes trash. What surprises most people is that the cup, that looks like cardboard, has a thin layer of plastic on the inside, making sure that the coffee doesn’t seep through the cup. And then there is the lid keeping in the heat, that everyone recognizes as plastic.

Cardboard without plastic on the inside

But what if as a consumer you just want the coffee to-go, not the cup? The cup is just a practical byproduct, but a byproduct that alongside 16 billion other single-use cups annually end up as trash in the EU and gets thrown into incinerators or open landfills. Is it a problem? Yes, because it uses large amounts of natural resources and energy to produce something that is just used for a short period of enjoyment, thus, generating massive amounts of trash, which in a best-case scenario are dealt with in various waste management systems. In worst case scenarios the cups end up in nature. It is as if the linear production system and consumer mentality are rooted in a different era without any connection to current day discussions and focus on sustainability and circular economy.  

” The cup is just a practical byproduct, but a byproduct that alongside 16 billion other single-use cups annually end up as trash in the EU and gets thrown into incinerators or open landfills. ”

Skyrocketing use of plastic

The fact is that the planets use of plastic is skyrocketing. The global use of plastic has increased twenty-fold in the past 50 years and will rise another 75 percent towards 2030 if we do not change production patterns and consumption. Simultaneously, the worlds amount of garbage will have increased with 70 percent by 2050, a significant amount will consist of single-use plastic and packaging. Amounts of waste that the world will never be able to handle.

Plast forurening - Plastic change - Hanne Svendsen

The tendency is that we try to solve the problems when things have already become garbage, instead of challenging the very fact that we are creating trash. We try to deal with the consequences of a problem rather than to solve the problem. It is as if there is no connection between the amounts of plastic produced and the amount of plastic trash, but production and trash directly correlate with each other. And connecting the two we have the consumer link that concerns behavior, culture and consumption.

A Culture of Complacency

But then what is the problem? Is it that we produce too much plastic, use too many single-use products, generate too much trash? Is it our everyday, busy to-go complacency culture? Actually, it is all of that together in a bittersweet unintentional conspiracy.

However, to speak of all of it at once is complicated, so in this context we are focusing on the single-use cups in the consumer link. This part is about culture, behavior and consumption. If we assume that people continue to have a need for coffee to-go, how would we be able to accommodate that need without contributing to the 16 billion single-use cups? The challenge is that the cup is “invisible” to the consumer in the consumption moment, since the coffee the focus of attention. But the cup has an enormous visibility as a trash product, especially if it doesn’t make it into the bin.

Coffee to-go in reusable cups

They have found a solution in the German city of Freiburg. In a collaboration between the town and their cafés a model for to-go coffee that doesn’t create waste has been developed. In all its simplicity, they buy coffee in a reusable plastic cup, leaving a deposit. 70 percent of the city’s cafés are part of this system. Here you can buy more coffee in the cup or return the cup and get your deposit back. Then the café washes and disinfects the cup that will go through the closed recycling system again. The result of this systematic approach is that the city of Freiburg has less waste to handle, the cafés still profit from selling coffee and the consumers still get their coffee to-go. It is pure sustainability.

If there is a choice between single-use and reusable cups, a creature of habit will often choose the recognizable single-use cup. Therefore there is a need for a coordinated effort where municipalities and cafés work together to build systems that support the best use of raw materials, as little trash as possible, and service offerings.

If they can do it in Freiburg, we can do it other places in the world too.